Interviews: Madonna and Andrea Riseborough on W.E.

For nearly thirty years, Madonna has been treated like royalty in the world of popular music, which may be one reason it wasn’t too surprising when she decided to tackle the life of royalty in her second movie as a director, W.E..

The initials stand for “Wallis” and “Edward,” the latter being the temporary King of England who was forced to abdicate the throne in 1936 when he refused to break things off with his divorced American sweetheart, Wallis Simpson. Some Americans may already be familiar with this story from its inclusion in last year’s Oscar winner The King’s Speech. In Madonna’s movie, Simpson is played by rising star Andrea Riseborough, and her story is seen through the admiring eyes of a modern-day New Yorker, Abbie Cornish’s Wally Winthrop, who turns to Wallis for strength to help her get through an abusive marriage.

The film shows a lot of growth for Madonna as a filmmaker from her previous Filth and Wisdom and back in December, had a rare opportunity to be in the same room with Madonna and ask her some questions about the movie.

But before we get to that, we also had an exclusive interview with the film’s star, Andrea Riseborough, who has become one of Britain’s rising stars in the last two years. (Note: We spoke to her before it was announced that she would be in Joseph Kosinski’s Horizons with Tom Cruise, in case you were wondering.) I guess the question you’ll get the most is how this came about? Was a script sent to you?

Andrea Riseborough:
Madonna had seen me play Margaret Thatcher and she sent me the script and I thought the script was really unique and I really responded to it and thought it would be something really wonderful to excavate and that’s how it all started really.

CS: Did you get both sections of the script, including all the present-day stuff?

Are you asking if they sent half the script, Edward? (laughs) No, they tend not to do that. (laughs) Well, of course, because the relationship existed in the abstract. If you’ve seen the movie then you know that Wally and Wallis have their own relationship in the movie even though it’s in the abstract, so certainly I had read the whole script.

CS: Were you already familiar with Wallis?

Of course, peripherally. My perception of her was monochrome and still, an enigmatic androgynous figure that I had no real emotional relationship with but knew historically a little bit about her.

CS: Is her story taught in school?


CS: I think more people (at least here) know her more because of “The King’s Speech” which came out after you shot the movie.

It turned out to be an extraordinarily brilliant precursor in a way.

CS: What kind of preparation did you do? I know there’s a lot of newsreel footage of him but was there stuff of her you

Did you find more of him than of her?

CS: No, I know there’s newsreels of him because he was the king. I don’t know how much of her was out there.

Of course it’s sparse, but everything that there is I watched and it’s a very long answer really, Edward, because there was so very much. No leaf was unturned so you read everything you can possibly read, everything they’d written about themselves, everything other people had written about them, an anecdote they might have experience having dinner with them. Any single moment that you can find that’s written down, letters between one another, letters to other people about them, archival footage, moving image, still image especially because there’s an extraordinarily deep insight often in a still image where you can tell the body language between one person and another that you might not be able to catch in a movie image without stopping it, and then you take it from there and you forget all of that, and just trust that it’s inside of you. As an actor, you also have to chapter where you are in your journey. You have to know exactly how old you are when you’re dealing with a woman’s life between 26 and 70, so obviously, chronicling that and hopping in and out and as you know, we don’t film sequentially in a timeline.

CS: It’s nice when you can.

Well, trust me, you do, unless you work with two maybe three directors, so yes, all of that.

CS: At what point did you shoot the later scenes? Was there anything that was saved until the end like the scene at his death bed. Were you able to shoot that later?

Shot that about 2/3rds of the way through, but it’s not planned like that. It’s all about location and cost and timing and of course, when one might be able to afford a sequential day, for example. If there’s going to be scene 67 and then 68, you might want film it in that order, but you may not be able to because of lighting or time or location. But of course, where it’s necessary, a director always looks to do what they can in order, but they’re under such a huge amount of pressure.

CS: I can imagine. How much time did you have from getting the script to shooting to prepare for the role?

Month and a half?

CS: Was your Thatcher for a TV show?

It was for a movie, a BBC film.

CS: Was that a similar process?

Of course, of course. I sat in a bedroom and I chronicled her whole life.

CS: I’m sure people ask about the accent but your voice gets deeper and it changes over the course of time so did you have recordings of her at different times of life?

Her voice in our movie is a collaborative version of her voice, it’s a hybrid if you will, it’s not the Duchess’ actual voice which was incredibly grating. It’s fettered with elements of her voice and very much I felt evoked her spirit, but really, you use everything that is rooted in the historical in order to serve the purposes of the piece when you’re making a film. That’s an artistic and creative choice.

CS: But as far as having her voice change, did having the make-up on and seeing yourself old, did it naturally…

Seeing her older?

CS: Well, seeing yourself age…

Well, it’s not really me, is it? Yes, it’s my body as a tool. Seeing me older, I wouldn’t have looked like that. I would have looked completely different, wouldn’t I?

CS: But that must have contributed a lot to …

To my voice? Umm… the reflection in the mirror? I have a feeling that would have been a little bit of a superficial performance had that been… the key really is to internally be wherever you need to be. (laughs) Everything outside of that helps as it were.

CS: You’ve worked with a lot of different directors before so what was different about working with Madonna? Had you worked with a woman director before this?

Yes, many times. It’s different working with every director because by a person’s nature, their personality and who they are very much dictates the way that they approach their art, so it’s always different. I so much enjoyed working with Madonna. She was so prepared and so passionate and truly innovative in her approach. It was wonderful.

CS: One of my favorite scenes was when you’re dancing at the party and the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” was playing over it, which was quite a counterpoint. During that scene, did you know that was going to be the music or was that something that came later in post-production?

We rehearsed with two different pieces of music. We rehearsed with that piece and a different piece.

CS: What was the other piece?

I can’t recall the name of it but it was a period piece of Charleston-esque, more period, but things always change in the edit. Rodney Biggenheimer saw the film the other day and he very much observed that they played the Sex Pistols and he was pleased. I thought it was a wonderful choice of hers.

CS: You’ve been quite busy since doing this. I see that you have four movies you’ve either shot and you’re going to be at Sundance with one of them, “Shadow Dancer.” I know that’s about an IRA bomber?

I can’t talk about that yet. (laughs awkwardly)

CS: What are you generally looking for in a director or a script?

I’m very pragmatic. I have no plan.

CS: It’s an interesting choice to go from “Dagenham” to “Brighton Rock” and then this, which are all period pieces, very British.

Yeah, but Wallis is American. (laughs) From Baltimore.

CS: The film still seems very British.

Majoratively, the movies I have coming out are contemporary so it doesn’t feel that way to me, but as we were talking about scenes not being filmed sequentially, movies don’t get released sequentially either. One might take a couple years, perhaps, to come out, another might take three months. They just happened to come out in this order.

CS: It’s interesting to see the progression having seen a lot of these movies, so what’s next for you? Have you had the aspirations to do any big huge movies yet?

I’m moderately picky. It depends on what it is. It’s always about the material really and about the people that are going to be involved in the creative process because that’s what I really find the most fulfilling about this job, about being an actor. That’s what I look forward to, really doing fulfilling work.

Riseborough was the opening act and now we’re onto the main event, Madonna herself, and though she rarely does such intimate interviews at a roundtable of journalists, we found her to be quite succinct and eloquent, carefully thinking about her answers before responding. Here are some of the highlights of what Ms. Madonna had to say about her film:

How she first found out about Wallis:

“I first found out about them in high school I guess, it was part of my English pre-war history. Doesn’t everybody hear about Edward VIII’s abdication in a broadstrokes kind of way? I didn’t then really think about it again until I moved to England and I was desperate to get to know the country that I had just moved to. I didn’t want to really feel like a foreigner, so I was very intrigued by the royal family and the history of the monarchy so I started reading about Henry VIII and then Elizabeth I and then leading up to the Victorian Era, and then essentially all the way up to George the V and then Edward the VIII and then I got stuck there because up until that point, there wasn’t really any kings that gave up the throne, certainly not for the woman he loved. That intrigued me and I was struggling with the idea of that, a man leaving this powerful position and trying to understand the nature of their love, their relationship, what they did for each other, what they gave to each other and what she had that was so special, intriguing and magnetic and powerful that he would make this sacrifice. That’s when the real deep research began.”

The controversy surrounding Wallis Simpson:

“Especially in England. Here, not so much. People don’t have so much invested about kings and queens and who gave up what and stuff like that. That really intrigued me that if you did bring up your name at a social gathering that inevitably an argument would usually occur whether she was a witch or not, a man or a woman, an ambitious person or a clever witty human being or whatever. I was intrigued by that polarization and that made me even want to investigate more.”

If she felt some kinship to Wallis:

“That’s obviously a big draw. When I read a lot of her letters, I felt like I could have written some of those letters, like ‘Can’t a girl just get a break?’ but I did (relate to her) and I think there was some sort of symbiotic connection to her character. There are lots of strange connections. In London, my house is right around the corner from Bryanston Court where she lived with Ernest, so I used to wander around her and loiter and hang around that building. When Wallis Simpson goes in that door and says, ‘Get a life’ and then slams the door, that’s literally around the corner from me. I used to hang out there like some strange stalker trying to imagine the prince-mobile driving up and parking out there for a 6:00 cocktail and what it all must have been like at that time.”

Her thoughts on the attraction of Edward to Wallis:

“I discovered so many interesting, disturbing things like in those days, the first-born son of the Royal Family, the mother is actually meant to treat him in the coldest way without any affection or any love, so they’re prepared to be the King, because it’s country and duty before all. In order to have that kind of mindset, you can’t be an emotional creature. Your behavior cannot be informed by emotion; it has to be informed by sense of duty. Everyone is really cold to you and very formal with you, so I think when he met Wallis Simpson, I think he was really attracted to her irreverence, even though I still think she was very courteous and polite to him, she did it all with a wink and a smile, and she loved to dance. I think the other thing he loved about her was because he was raised with servants and staff, but when he went to her hours, she would run into the kitchen–because her mother was a cook–and she would whip things up in the kitchen and bring them out and he couldn’t get his head around the fact she would make the cocktails and the food and put it on the table. I think he really liked that and there’s something very maternal and nurturing about her and feminine, and I think all of those things were a big draw to him.”

Whether she felt more at home writing or directing:

“Writing is simpler – there’s less people involved and you have a lot more freedom when you’re writing obviously. There’s not a lot of people giving you their two cents. When you’re on the set of a movie there’s thousands of people around and there’s a clock ticking and a lot of things you have to get done in a short period of time. I think the freedom is really in the writing and then in the directing, you have to try and be in two places at the same time – one is in your practical shoes. ‘I have a certain amount of time, I have to get a certain amount of work done,’ and the other part is, ‘I need to be able to also be in this dream-like state where I’m allowing myself to channel this energy and capture a dream.’ That was always a challenging balance to strike.”

Wallis dancing to the Sex Pistols:

“When I first started writing the script, there were a lot of different points of view, lots of different titles and for a while, my working title was ‘The Punk Rock King,’ because I was really focused a lot on him and his behavior and how irreverent he was and how he broke all the rules and he pushed away from convention. He didn’t dress the way he was supposed to dress and how he didn’t date the people he was supposed to date. He did drink Benzedrine cocktails and he did have parties and he loved hanging out with Americans. He wanted to fight in the way, he wanted to affect change in the world around him, he wanted to bring new energy into Windsor Castle and the royal world. So many things about him were unconventional.”

Whether “The King’s Speech” coming out first helps her movie or not:

“It does because it introduces the idea and it shows the other side of the story, because it starts off with the kind who is suddenly thrust into this role of king when he had no preparation for it whatsoever, and Edward was the dashing debonair one, the one whom everyone loved and who could speak in front of people. He was the people’s prince and his little brother was shy and he had a speech impediment and he was really awkward. He didn’t want that part at all, and neither did his wife. In fact, when they were dating, she didn’t want to marry him and Edward was instrumental in putting them together, because she didn’t want to marry a royal because even though she was an aristocrat, she didn’t want to be in that world. She didn’t want to be in the limelight, she didn’t want to go to any ambassadorial functions. She didn’t want that life and Edward talked her into it. ‘But he’s my little brother and you’ll never be expected to do any of those things.’ He played Cupid in their relationship and they were really, really close.

“While I’m happy about ‘The King’s Speech’ because it does set up my movie in so many ways, and it gives people a reference point, the one thing besides the fact I didn’t like was how Wallis Simpson was portrayed, they didn’t show how close the brothers were. They really were very close and it was a heartbreaking experience for both of them when he was exiled and they weren’t really allowed to communicate anymore. I felt bad about that because I knew that wasn’t the truth. I thought the relationship between he and the speech therapist was the winning aspect of the film. In terms of how it sets up my movie, I think it’s good because people see it and they go, ‘Oh, right, that’s that guy and that’s what happened before the became the king.'”

Her thoughts on people’s perceptions of the film:

“It’s been at many festivals now – Venice, Toronto, London and I had a screening at the Museum of Modern Art, and I know a lot of people have seen it and written about it, though I have not read anything anyone’s written about it. I think people will like it or not like it.”

Madonna’s W.E. opens on Friday, February 3 in select cities. Two days later, Madonna performs the half-time show at the Super Bowl, surely not a coincidence?


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